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Debating “Inglourious Basterds”

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“Usually if I’m standing in front of an audience, they’ve got spikes in their faces. It means a lot for me to be here.” Last Thursday, Eli Roth, “torture porn” innovator (he’s directed horror films such as Hostel), introduced Inglourious Basterds to an audience at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. He was the third speaker after Robert Morgenthau and Harvey Weinstein.

I’ll always think of Roth as my sophomore year Resident Advisor at NYU. Back then, he was a preternaturally ambitious film student. He hosted movie night; he had a practiced, firm handshake (Roth held dorm-room conversations on speakerphone while gripping a forearm strengthener in each hand). His student film Restaurant Dogs, was a shot for shot remake of the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, with the McDonald’s Happy Meal characters as his leads. If ever a personality and a career were created in Tarantino’s image, they are Roth’s.

In Inglourious Basterds, Roth plays a baseball bat wielding baddie with an Eddie Munster hairline and a South Boston accent. His “Bear Jew” bashes German heads as a vocation. Roth also directed the Nazi propaganda reels within the film. His presence in the movie – which follows a gleefully savage group of men who take scalps instead of prisoners – underscores the uneasy role of Tarantino’s film within the World War II cannon. When recreating a war of atrocities, is it exploitation when the gruesome entertains?

At a museum that serves as a living memorial to the Holocaust, the film prompted applause and objection. With Life is Beautiful, Harvey Weinstein has already asserted that irreverence is an acceptable response to the Holocaust. Weinstein offered a deft introduction: “This is a fantasy,” he prepared viewers. “Remember that it begins with the words, Once upon a time. The language of fairy tales.” And, perhaps to show their respect, both Weinstein and Roth mentioned the branches of their own families lost in the Second World War.

Tarantino was less apologetic; he’s a storyteller first. Basterds springs from the director’s love affair with cinema, from spaghetti Westerns to the Dirty Dozen, as much as from his engagement with history. His nimble interactions with the crowd (“I know this is a Q&A for me, but I really want to ask you questions.”) were a testament to his strength as a director – the ability to negotiate the strong emotions he has provoked. He was gratified when people applauded the film’s wish-fulfilling conclusion, gracious when others objected to the violence of the ending.

But it was Melanie Laurent, the film’s French lead, who spoke most eloquently about her personal connections to the story — by refusing to elaborate upon her own family’s tragedies. Perhaps this is fitting. Tarantino calls Laurent’s character the unknown hero of the war. Amid the grisly humor and juvenile violence, Inglourious Basterds finds its emotional anchor in Laurent’s silence and discretion.

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